VICTORIA - Southern Vancouver Island aboriginals donned traditional vests and headdresses at an international hearing in Washington, D.C. Friday as they accused Canada of long-standing human rights abuses.
History was at the forefront of the appearance of the Duncan, B.C., area's Hul'qumi'num Treaty Group before the Organization of American States, which counts 35 independent states in the Americas, including Canada, as its members.
The Hul'qumi'num human rights dispute with Canada dates back to 1884 when the federal government gave more than 200,000 hectares of what they considered their land to industrialist James Dunsmuir to build the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway through Vancouver Island.
The claim isn't new, ancestors of the group once took their land concerns to Buckingham Palace, where in 1906 British newspapers reported on the extraordinary meeting between the aboriginals and King Edward.
Hul'qumi'num spokesman Robert Williams told the OAS hearing that the federal government expropriated, without compensation, almost two-thirds of their territory, and much of that land now is controlled by three large forest companies who are clearcutting timber and selling land to real estate developers.
Williams said the aboriginals want Canada to negotiate boundaries and title to the lands with them or offer some compensation for their cultural, social and territorial losses.
One Hul'qumi'num elder told the hearing he is forced to sneak onto what now is considered private property to access areas for medicinal plants and a sacred bathing spot.
"If we go there we would be trespassing," he said. "We live in fear of signs, private property, trespassing, trespassers will be prosecuted."
Canada's lawyer Jane Arbour, who said she was representing Canada and British Columbia, said the petition by the Hul'qumi'num raises issues of great importance to Canada, but she cautioned about what she called "misinformation in these briefs."
"Canada does not agree with these allegations," she said. "Canada takes issue to all aspects of the petition."
There are about 200 First Nations in British Columbia and currently 100 per cent of the province's land mass is the subject of a land-claim by a B.C. First Nation.
The Hul'qumi'num, which is currently in treaty negotiations with the federal and B.C. government's, has 18 other First Nations claiming part or all of their claimed territory, the hearing was told.
Arbour said Canada and B.C. are committed to the current modern-day treaty negotiation process, which has yielded two treaties in the past 20 years.
She said the Hul'qumi'num's land claims have never been proven by a court and suggested that they may want to head to court.
University of Victoria anthropologist Prof. Brian Thom attended the hearing as an observer and said the action represented the first time a Canadian First Nation appeared before the OAS.
He said he believes it signalled the moment where B.C. First Nations may turn away from the treaty negotiation process and move towards settling their issues as human rights abuses.
"They're reframing the whole discourse today," said Thom. "The decisions of this commission could be crucial in reframing the next generation of aboriginal leadership. We've just had 20 years of that process and the current generation, I think, is tired of that discussion.
"The next generation may be thinking about human rights for a good long time."
The OAS is expected to announce its decision in March.